An Introduction to Carnism
When I read non-fiction, I read it very differently from reading fiction. And when I read a book like this about animal ethics, about vegetarianism and how to stop eating meat, I try to read it very carefully and I try keep my emotions out of it – which is very hard when reading about how we treat animals, even though this is a decent book without a lot of emotional blackmailing.
I’ll just mention before anybody reads further, that there will be a few graphic details in the review below so be forewarned.
Melanie Joy’s point with this book is to try and investigate and explain why we are comfortable eating some animals and not others. Why do most of us feel okay with eating a cow but not a dog. Why do we feel so bad when we hear about how they treat dogs in Asia before they eat them but don’t care how pigs are treated before we eat them?
To explain this, Joy introduces the term ‘carnism’ as the opposite of vegetarianism, meaning people who have decided to eat meat: “We eat animals without thinking about what we are doing and why because the belief system that underlies this behavior is invisible. This invisible belief system is what I call carnism. Carnism is the belief system in which eating certain animals is considered ethical and appropriate.” (p. 29-30).
Our view on different animals is all about perception – how we perceive these animals determines how we treat them. We perceive dogs almost as persons so therefore we of course can’t eat them. But pigs for instance, we perceive as being dirty stupid animals, so we don’t care about eating them. This also means that when eating a pig, we don’t imagine a cute little piggy playing with other small piglets but if we were told we were eating dog, we would immediately think of a cute dog running and playing on the grass. It’s all about perception.
But if we suddenly imagined a cute calf when eating veal, would we be able to continue eating? Most people probably wouldn’t – even though we divide animals into edible and inedible and cows are classified as edible. Joy’s claim is that if we imagine the animals classified as edible as real living individual animals while eating them, then we will think differently about eating them because even though we are supposed to like eating cows for instance, the image of the actual animal might destroy this learned preference. That’s also why we talk about eating beef and not eating cow, to hide what we’re actually eating. We objectify animals, we de-individualize them and we dichotomize (classify them as edible and inedible) them – as well as think that it’s normal, necessary and natural to eat animals.
Joy has a good point when she mentions that we only like to eat a very few types of animals and feel disgusted at eating the rest – and she thinks that our lack of disgust is at least somewhat learned. And with the lack of disgust disappears also our empathy – and even though we like animals and don’t want them to suffer, we change our perception so we don’t have to think about whether the animals we are eating, actually suffered.
Joy argues that the meat industry have taught us not to feel about the animals being slaughtered by disguising as much as possible what we’re actually eating and what happens in the slaughterhouse. Therefore, her point with this book is to deconstruct the invisibility of the system and making us all bear witness to what’s really going on. Because even though billions of animals are slaughtered and eaten each year, most of us don’t see that many of them – and definitely don’t see much of the process of meat production.
She deconstruct it by telling it like it is – how are cows, pigs and chickens actually treated in the meat industry. Now, if you’ve read books like this before, none of this is truly new or shocking but the good thing about this books is that she keeps her head most of the way and at least gives the impression of being straight about the real conditions – how the meat production goes so fast that some animals are not killed at the appropriate moment but sometimes dies bit by bit as they are chopped into pieces, boiled alive, skinned alive etc. – and at the very least, it’s probably a safe bet to say that all animals die scared.
There were a few new things to me – for instance that it’s illegal in some places to boil lobsters alive because they are able to feel it, that it’s illegal in Monza, Italy, to keep goldfish confined in small bowls and that in 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a report criticizing the U.S. meat industry for working conditions so appalling that they violate basic human right (p. 80-81)!
I really liked how she argued that we are all the collateral damage of carnism because it’s not necessarily the most healthy way to eat, it’s damaging for the environment – and at least in the US the meat industry doesn’t live up to certain health standards (although we in Denmark have several meat scandals recently where super markets sold bad meat). Of course, the workers in the industry also grow accustomed to violence and sometimes act out on their family or others – or on the animals.
Now, it is clear that the United States are far behind Europe when it comes to animal rights – in Europe things are still bad but they are not as bad as in the US – as Joy also points out at several points. This doesn’t give Europeans a carte blanche to eat meat because if you accept that animals are individuals in their own right who are able to suffer (and several studies have shown them to not only be fully able to feel and suffer but also to have the emotional capacity of at least the same level as young children – something Joy doesn’t really go into), then you probably should think about whether it’s okay to eat them.
As I’ve already stated, Joy does a good job of not being too emotional, blackmailing us or using bad arguments but she does cross the line – for instance here: “Under carnism, for instance, democracy has become defines as having the freedom tho choose among products that sicken our bodies and pollute our planet, rather than the freedom to eat our food and breathe our air without the risk of being poisoned.” (p. 88). Most people making the decisions are also brought up in the system and she makes it sound like decisions makers are determined to keep us unhealthy – and at least some of the research showing the negative effect on the environment and that meat are not the healthiest choice to eat, are very recent and it takes time for all to change. (Although, of course, with the way American politics are being run with lobbyist able to buy politicians, there are some further issues in the States regarding this.)
One other thing I’ve always had a problem with is the comparison between the meat industry and the Nazis’ slaughtering of Jews. Although I don’t see human beings as in a class of our own compared to the rest of the animals, we do have a bit more mental power and I think there is at the very least a difference in degree between what we are doing to the animals – and what the Nazis did – although I do see the similarities. And maybe it’s just because I’m part of this system, this cruelty, because I haven’t chosen the right pill yet as Morpheus offered Neo in the Matrix (which Joy also references as a comparison).
What this all comes down to is, that as modern human beings we seem to have a choice – at least those of us securely living in the western parts of the world. We do not go hungry if we stop eating meat – and evidence is slowly tickling in suggesting that it is actually healthier for both ourselves and the environment to eat at the very least less meat, if not stop eating it altogether.
But why is it then so hard to do? This is because we are trained from a very small age to eat meat. Before we are able to speak for ourselves, we have our first bite of meat. I’ve read some studies where they suggested that children don’t like meat – from my own personal study of one child, I can say that isn’t true – although she prefer easily chewable stuff like sausages and ground beef.
So I’m not a vegetarian. I’m thinking about becoming it – not just because of this book but because of many books like this, because I don’t like much meat and because I don’t like the idea of animal suffering. I don’t eat a lot of meat but I try to cut down on it all the time and – as Joy also mentions – to do that, you have to face up to the facts regularly to remember why you’re doing it.
Books like this makes me cry. The descriptions of the brutality of some workers in the slaughterhouses are so incredible cruel that it’s almost impossible to understand. I’m not sure if I buy her entire argument yet – but I’m not sure whether that’s because I’ve always been brought up to live in the bubble where it’s okay to eat meat or if it’s because her arguments are not entirely valid all the way through – I’m still processing it all.
Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.